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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Through names I walk

Meuse-Argonne cemetery, c. 1919
When visiting the battlefields of France and Belgium, one can't help but be struck by the overwhelming number of cemeteries and memorials.  The lines of headstones, the columns of names – they are simply staggering.  In these places, Dante's lines from The Inferno, quoted by TS Eliot in The Wasteland, echo deeply: "I had not thought death had undone so many."   

Daniel Sargent's poem "Names" tenderly considers the thousands upon thousands of inscriptions, the names of those who died in The Great War, focusing on the simple names of two very ordinary men. 

To Leon Cathlin

....But names are the things.  The names are everywhere.
Through names I walk.  The names, at them I stare. 
I am beleaguered by them as at night
In a city we are dazzled left and right
By the fiery advertisements, and we see
No city but the electricity….

…some little group will pass
Seeking their fathers sleeping in the grass.
Tingle Culbertson, Meuse-Argonne Cemetery
They'll read these names with love and with dismay:
"These were our kin and yet they passed away." 
A hundred years from now some archivist
Also may read the names and make a list. 
A thousand years from now there still may be
A road for goats into this privacy,
And perhaps a singing visitor may come,
Perhaps a child blue-berrying with blue thumb,
Who cannot read, who may for all we know
Laugh in the dialect of the Esquimaux.
And yet the names were not for her and not
For all the rest that wandered in this lot.
Whom are they for?  We do not have to guess.
Our bones proclaim it in their stubbornness.
There's One who knows our name as well as we:
He badged our bones at birth with identity.

And when He comes…--But look, but look: the sky
Now blossoms like a morning glory on high.
"O Lord of Hosts, in the glory Thou comest with,
Behold us here:  Joe Baker and John Smith." 

Daniel Sargent, the author of this excerpt (the full text of the poem appears in the 1962 volume Everything Happened) volunteered to drive ambulance for the American Field Service in 1916, when America was a neutral nation.  When the US entered the war in the spring of 1917, he enlisted with the doughboys and served at the battle of Cantigy in May of 1918, America's first offensive in The Great War.  He survived and returned home, becoming a published poet and professor of English at Harvard.    Many of his friends did not return.  

Dan Sargent and Tingle Culbertson,
with the American Ambulance Service
I've listened to the audiotape of Sargent's interview with Lyn MacDonald (he is quoted in her book Roses of No Man's Land), and I was struck by his charm and good humor, as well as by the note of sadness that underlies his remembrances of the war and of his friends who died in battle.  The poem "Names" gives voice to the sorrow of that loss, as well as to the eternal hope that Sargent found during the war in France, a faith that gave him purpose and meaning for the rest of his life (he died at age 96 in 1987).  

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